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Farm Workers Lose Right to Unionize


May 5, 2011
By Alexandra Posadzki Canadian Press

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May 5, 2011 – One of the country's largest unions said Friday it will take its fight for agricultural workers to the Ontario government after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled a provincial ban on farm unions is constitutional.

May 5, 2011 – One of the country's largest unions said Friday it will
take its fight for agricultural workers to the Ontario government after
the Supreme Court of Canada ruled a provincial ban on farm unions is
constitutional.

The Supreme Court's 8-1 decision means that more than 80,000 Ontario farm workers have lost the right to join a union and bargain collectively.

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“This decision is not really worth the paper it's printed on,” said Stan Raper of United Food and Commercial Workers Canada. “It's not even fertilizer.”

The high court decided that the province's existing Agriculture Employees Protection Act gives workers a meaningful process by which to bargain. It allows farm workers to join associations, but does not force employers to enter into collective bargaining.

Ontario's agriculture minister said she supports the Supreme Court decision but is willing to listen to the concerns of workers.

“It's a very careful decision,” Carol Mitchell said Friday. “The Supreme Court has reaffirmed that the Agriculture Employees Protection Act is appropriate.”

“We are always listening and willing to work with the agricultural community,” she added.

But the food workers' union says the act, which is meant to be a forum for workers to air their complaints, doesn't work. Union leaders said Friday they will lobby the Ontario government for more protection.

“Clearly there's a need out there for workers to have a forum to identify their problems with their employers collectively,” union president Wayne Hanley told a news conference at the Ontario legislature. “That need is not being satisfied. The Supreme Court has not provided any opportunity or any assistance for these
workers.”

Hanley says his association receives numerous complaints from Ontario agricultural workers about deaths, unsafe working conditions, air quality issues and worker's compensation issues.

“The Supreme Court of Canada has abandoned agricultural workers here in Ontario in their plight for dignity and respect,” Hanley said. “To say that we are disappointed in today's decision would be an understatement. Quite frankly we are shocked.”

The union's leaders said they are not giving up and will explore several avenues, including lobbying the provincial government to introduce a bill that would cover agricultural workers under the Labour Relations Act.

“This is just a bump in the road in our fight for justice for agricultural workers here in Ontario,” Hanley said. “The power is in the hands of the Ontario government. They can introduce a bill that would cover the agricultural workers under the Labour Relations Act tomorrow, and these workers would have the protections needed.”

But a quick fix is unlikely, he added.

In November 2008, the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the union's charter challenge against the ban.

The Ontario government of Premier Dalton McGuinty appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments in December 2009.

The high court allowed the McGuinty government's appeal in its decision Friday.

The eight justices who allowed the appeal were divided on exactly how the workers should be allowed to bargain, but ultimately ruled that the existing act is sufficient.

“What is protected is associational activity, not a particular process or result,” Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin and Justice Louis LeBel wrote for the majority.

“The AEPA provides a special labour regime for agricultural workers. However, on the record before us, it has not been established that the regime utilizes unfair stereotypes or perpetuates existing prejudice and disadvantage,” the justices wrote.

“Until the regime established by the AEPA is tested, it cannot be known whether it inappropriately disadvantages farm workers. The claim is premature.”

UFCW Canada represents more than 250,000 Canadian workers and has been advocating for farm workers' rights for more than two decades.